Monday, December 16, 2013


Most wild cheetahs live in Africa, which is where my distant cousins, the basenjis, live.  I think that a cheetah would be happy to eat a basenji, and a cheetah could catch one, too, because cheetahs are the fastest land mammals in the whole world.  A cheetah can go from standing totally still to running 62 miles per hour (120 km/h) in three seconds flat.
Cheetahs hunt in the daytime, and they hunt by sight, not by scent.  The way they hunt is they stalk their prey until they are 100 feet or even closer to it, and then they suddenly start running.  About 50% of the time, cheetahs catch what they are hunting.  They can only keep up such a high speed for about 500 yards, so if they haven't caught their prey by then, they usually give up.  They may need to rest for a half hour or more after a chase because running so hard puts a lot of strain on their bodies.

Photo:  Paul Souders/Stone/Getty Images

The animals that cheetahs hunt most often are the Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, springbok, impala, hares, and guineafowl.  They also kill the young of larger mammals like wildebeests and zebras, but usually they do not not hunt anything that weighs more than about 90 pounds, unless a group of cheetahs are hunting together.

Photo:  Corbis
Cheetahs make their kills by tripping the prey during the chase, then biting the throat to suffocate it or cut an artery.  They aren't strong enough to break the neck of their prey.  After making a kill, the cheetah has to drag it off someplace and eat it pretty quickly.  Otherwise, some bigger predator such as a lion might come along and steal it.

Cheetah with an impala.
Photo:  Nick Farnhill

The scientific name for cheetahs is Acinonyx jubatus.  The word cheetah comes from a Sanskrit word that means "variegated."  Cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats, and they are the only ones who don't roar.  They can purr, but only when they breathe in.  Other big cats purr when they breathe out.  House cats purr when they breathe in and out.  So this is one way you can tell all these different cats apart.

Scientists think that cheetahs started out in Africa and then spread to the Middle East and India.  Back in 1900, there were more than 100,000 cheetahs living in their historic range, but now there are maybe 9,000 to 12,000 in Africa and only about 200 left in Iran.  So because their numbers are now so small, the cheetah is classified as VULNERABLE.

©Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Cheetahs don't adjust to living in zoos as well as other big cats do.  Mostly, it's hard to get them to have baby cheetahs in captivity, but some zoos have had success in this.  One thing that seems to help a cheetah feel happier in a zoo is to give it a dog as a playmate.  The dog can also guard the cheetah and make it feel safer.

Steve Bloom Images/Alamy

Everything about cheetahs helps them be fast runners and good hunters. Their chests are deep and their waists are narrow.  They have claws that retract partway, which helps them get better traction.  Their  heads are small, with the eyes set high up.  There are black "tear marks" running from the eyes down to the mouth.  These marks help keep the sunlight out of the cheetah's eyes.  The long tail is used like a rudder to help the cheetah make quick turns while chasing its prey.

Photo:  Bernhard Sedlmaier

When female cheetahs are about 20 to 24 months old, they start thinking about making baby cheetahs.  Males don't usually do this until they are 3 years old.  Mating can happen anytime during the year, and then the cubs are born after about 90 days.  The average litter size is between 3 and 5, but it can be as big as 9.  Cubs are born with spots and with a mantle of soft hair along their backs.  They leave their mothers when they are between 13 and 20 months old.  The life span of a cheetah is about 12 years in the wild and up to 20 years in captivity.

The Ancient Egyptians used to tame cheetahs and keep them as pets.  They also trained the cheetahs for hunting.  The cats were taken to the fields blindfolded, in carts or by horseback.  They were kept on leashes while dogs found the prey.  When the prey got close enough, the cheetahs were released to go chase it.

Other people who used cheetahs in this way were the Persians, Indian princes, Genghis Khan, and Charlemagne.  Akbar the Great, who ruled the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605, kept about 1,000 cheetahs.  In the 1930s, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia used to like having pictures taken of himself with cheetahs.

I asked Mom if we could get a nice, tame cheetah of our own, but she said we have enough cats here, eating us out of house and home.  I think there are plenty of squirrels and rabbits in the back yard to feed a cheetah, and Mom would not have to buy any special cheetah food.  But she still said no.  Darn.

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